In 2010 at the start of the Coalition Nick Boles published an interesting book on how to remodel government. Entitled “Which way’s up?” it brought together a lot of exciting ideas for changing government for the better.
I agreed with many of them. I have always wanted wider ownership and more participation in the wealth of the country for all. I like devolving power from government to individuals, families, charities and private institutions. I am up for a major improvement in productivity and quality throughout the public sector. This is all common ground. Some of the ideas drew on things Conservatives were doing in 1980s, some on the radical maifesto of Hannan and Carlswell, the “Plan”.
At the core of much of it was a plea for a radical transformation of government, devolving power from central government and Whitehall to Town Hall. Mr Boles recommended the abolition of all District Councils, the introduction of elected Mayors, and the transfer of many powers to County and Borough government. He recommended Councils having more powers to tax, so that half their revenues come from local taxes, to enable central taxes to be cut further as services are transferred. He wanted Councils to have more power to make more government decisions that affect everyone’s lives.
I mention this today because Mr Boles is now in a position to do something about all this. He has settled in as Planning Minister in the Department for local government. He is working with and for a radical Secretary of State, Eric Pickles. Mr Pickles has already swept aside much of our unloved English regional government structure. The question is, what will this pair now do to reduce the amount of government we have in total, and to transfer functions to local control where governemnt is needed?
In Mr Boles own area of planning we were promised a system where once a local Council has an approved plan national Inspectors and Ministers will not second guess it on appeal. So far this has not been delivered. Appeal decisions still go against Councils with plans, undermining their ability to negotiate strong Section 106 agreements. Time will tell whether Mr Boles can and will do it. I wish him well.
It will be interesting to see what if any monument for less central government he chooses, and how easy he finds it to push through what remains overall a very bureacratic and centralised structure. There are more gold stars for finding things government no longer needs to do at all, but there are good marks to be won for stronger and more accountable local government as well.